Health, Parenting, Personal

Cut Child Benefit to Punish Parents?

So, I read this afternoon, that some GPs are in favour of reducing child benefit by half in cases where parents don’t have those children vaccinated.

I think this is an appalling idea. Child benefit is a monthly, non-means-tested payment made, by the Irish State, to ease the financial costs associated with raising children in Ireland. Many households here rely on Child Benefit to help pay recurring monthly bills; gas, electricity, insurance, mortgage etc. You can’t argue that children don’t benefit from those bills being paid; or that they aren’t necessary for the child’s well-being. In other households (like mine), that €140 per child, is ear-marked for educational purposes. Other people use it for shoes or clothes. A few, a very lucky few, save or invest in order to have a lump sum for that child on their 18th birthday, or to help with costs associated with third-level education. Whatever the money is spent on, the clue really is in the title – the money is for each child in the country to help defray costs associated with raising that child. Cutting the benefit will not punish the parents, it will punish the children.

To suggest that a financial payment for a child should be cut if that child is not vaccinated against childhood diseases is a display of angry, lazy thinking at its worst. If the desire is to increase the uptake of vaccinations, then surely a better approach is to educate parents, to address their fears and concerns around vaccinations? Then – and I know this might appear radical – how about allowing parents to, you know, parent? By that I mean provide them with information and then encourage them to decide for themselves what is right for their particular child, and their particular family, at that time.

The idea that child benefit should be halved for children whose parents don’t act in the way that a certain group of people think they should act is patronising, paternalistic, and arrogant. It indicates that the group calling for this diminishing of the benefit believes they are absolutely right. In this instance, a group of doctors think that they should be able to wield a financial stick at parents who don’t agree with them. Missing the point entirely, of course, that such action would impact more on the children than on their parents. It also further encourages the myth that child benefit is a boon to parents – that it can (and should) be rescinded for non-compliance with a particular directive. What next? A slashing of child benefit if they don’t go to school? A further cut if they’re not breastfed? Another if they’re obese?

I would point out to this group of GPs that to punish a child for the lack of action on the part of their parents – which you view as negligent in the first place – is, by your own logic, punishing the child twice. Don’t do that. Don’t suggest that your frustrations be taken out on an already vulnerable group.

 

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Health, Media, Parenting, Personal, Uncategorized

‘Don’t Use Words I Don’t Want You To’ – Irish Minister

pregnant-belly

As if running the Department of Poverty wasn’t a big enough job for Leo Varadkar, he’s decided to elect himself Minister for Mansplaining, and give himself cabinet responsibility for correct terminology as well.

Leo has decided that for every person, everywhere, who is ever pregnant, the correct word to use to describe the contents of their womb is ‘baby’.

‘Foetus’ Leo mansplains to all of us who have ever, will ever, or might ever, be pregnant, is not a word that we should use. Nor is it a word that should be used in reference to our pregnancies by mere mortals without a medical degree. ‘Foetus’, according to Dr V, is a medical word. The implication being that those of us who don’t hold medical degrees should not use medical words. We should not refer to our fingers as ‘digits’, either, he cautions. Presumably in case we lose the run of ourselves entirely, and start having a go at performing craniotomies during our lunch-breaks.

I only wish Dr V had been around 13 or 14 years ago, when I started telling my daughter that her vulva was her vulva, rather than her ‘fanny’ or her ‘front bum’ or her ‘butterfly’. I hope she doesn’t get notions above her station as a result. Idly, I wonder if Leo referred to his penis as his ‘passion pencil’ until he was a fully qualified medical doctor. Or if he’d be chagrined if he heard me talking about a migraine, and explaining to my GP that it had started occipitally? Would he chastise me, do you think, and tell me I should talk about the back of my head, instead? Except, referring to the back of my head is not as precise as referring to my occipital bone; and sometimes it is necessary and useful to be precise.

Does Leo not understand that women are allowed to refer to the contents of their wombs however they please? If a woman wants to refer to the product of conception inside her as ‘foetus’, ‘baby’, ‘peanut’, ‘sprog’, ‘alien’ or any other word she likes (the last time I was pregnant, my daughters referred to the contents of my womb as ‘The Minion’), it is not my place to tell her that she is using the wrong word. I would respectfully suggest that Dr V adopt the same attitude.

I find his diktat that all women should refer to their foetuses as babies – and that their friends and families should, too – to be more than vaguely unsettling.  If women aren’t even allowed, by Leo, to use the language which feels most appropriate for them, at a given time, what else does he think they really shouldn’t have a choice about? Or that they should only have limited choice about?

There is an element of nuance involved in this naming business. For a lot of women, when a pregnancy is wanted, they talk about their ‘baby’ even though they know it is not, actually, a baby. Every woman who wants to be a mother, wants to have a baby; but knows that first, she will have a blastocyst, then a zygote, then an embryo, then a foetus, then – if she’s lucky – a baby. We project our hopes onto our wanted pregnancies. We imagine what we’ll have at the end. We invest in them.

Every woman who doesn’t want to be a mother, doesn’t want to have a baby. She knows that she is well within her rights – even if not well within the law in Ireland – to decide what happens to her body. She will refer to it as an embryo or a foetus when discussing it because she is using the correct terminology, whether Leo likes it or not.

Leo also mentioned asking his pregnant friend if she knew what sex her baby was going to be (thank God he used correct terminology and didn’t ask her what gender) and I’m a bit horrified by this, to be honest. It’s none of his business. If his friend wanted to tell him, he should have left it up to her to disclose, and not gone prying. Is it just me, or does this interrogation assume a level of entitlement that he doesn’t deserve?

I also find it interesting that Leo decided to speak for his friend and his sisters by telling the world that if he had used the word ‘foetus’ when referring to their pregnancies, they would have been offended. Why? Because he thinks it’s a ‘medical’ word. I find this deeply disturbing; that a man would assume a woman would take offence because he thinks their thoughts and feelings should match his own? Is this more evidence of entitlement? Or am I over-thinking this?

When I speak to friends who are pregnant, I never say ‘How’s the foetus?’ (I reserve that for when I’m gently joshing friends who are in May-December relationships). Equally, though, I never say ‘How’s the baby?’ Instead, I ask ‘How are you?’ The person I’m addressing is free to choose whether or not to interpret that as second person singular or second person plural (do you think Leo will object to my using such technical language?), and answer accordingly. I don’t decide for her what word should be used in this context. It’s not my place.

 Maybe I’m over-sensitive. Or maybe I just don’t like being mansplained at by a privileged male with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

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Health, Personal, Uncategorized

Breaking the Cycle

On Monday and Tuesday of this week, Safe Ireland held a seminar with distinguished speakers from around the world. They discussed things I know a lot about – abuse, violence, trauma and the effects of same. I wasn’t at the conference, because (frankly) it was out of my price range, but I am very grateful to those who live-tweeted the event using the hashtag #safeirelandsummit

 

One of the things that struck me was the fact that John Lonergan (former governor of Mountjoy Jail) was reported as asking ‘How do we prevent? That is the challenge’

 

I can only assume he was asking how we might prevent domestic violence. Part of me is shocked that someone would even need to ask, but I’ll get over that and focus instead on the fact that, if you’re asking, it means you’re interested. So, here, are ten things that you can do to work on the prevention and elimination of domestic violence.

 

  1. Stop calling it ‘domestic’ violence. It’s family violence. It’s intimate partner abuse, it’s family abuse. ‘Domestic’ makes it sound less serious than it actually is. Calling abusing your partner ‘a domestic’ makes it sound innocuous, and makes it less likely that anyone will intervene.

 

  1. Start respecting women. All women. Not just the ones you’re related to – and not just because you’re related to them. Women deserve respect because they are alive, not because of their relationship to you or someone you know. Personally, I’m sick of hearing / reading ‘Imagine if it was your wife / girlfriend / sister / mother / daughter’. Woman are valid regardless of their kinship.

 

  1. Don’t tolerate sexist language. If a colleague makes an anti-woman ‘joke’ or statement, call them on it. Remember when it was okay to tell anti-Irish jokes? Why is it not okay to do that any more? Because people stopped accepting that casual racism as ‘humour’. Do the same with sexist jokes.

 

  1. Don’t tell your sons not to hit girls. Tell them not to hit anyone. Telling boys not to hit girls implies that girls can’t take care of themselves, and are easier targets than other boys. It also reinforces the notion that hitting females is an easy way to control them. We don’t want violence in our lives, no matter who it’s directed at.

 

  1. Teach the males in your lives that it’s not okay to talk over women, or interrupt them. To do so is disrespectful. Respecting women is key to not abusing them.

 

  1. Don’t take up more space than you have to: For example, ‘manspreading’ on public transport, and expecting a woman to move out of your way when you’re walking down the street. It’s aggressive and disrespectful. By taking up more space than you need, you’re forcing us to take up less than we need. You’re treating us as if we’re invisible. Invisible women don’t feel safe.

 

  1. Recognise that abuse is more than physical. Often, it’s the bruises that can’t be seen that cause most pain. Emotional, financial, psychological and sexual abuse cause (at least) as much damage. The threat of being hit, of knowing that the man you’re with, may strike out at you at any stage, is hugely damaging. Gaslighting is highly abusive.

 

  1. Make sure there is information about where help can be found prominently displayed in your office. Often, women who are gaslighted and otherwise abused, have no idea that what is happening to them is wrong. Often, they don’t see themselves as abused. Sometimes because a part of them believes they deserve the treatment they’re getting. Informing them otherwise may empower them to get help.

 

  1. Many women who are victims of their intimate partners are re-victimised. They have already been traumatised. They have grown up seeing their (step)fathers abuse their mothers; they have been sexually assaulted, they have been conditioned to expect nothing else. Be kind. Kindness – given freely, and without expectation of ‘payment’ – is the opposite of abuse.

 

  1. Finally, we will stop men hurting women when we stop accepting and excusing it. Stop saying ‘But he’s a pillar of the community’, stop saying ‘But he’s a great GAA man’, stop saying ‘But he’s a good provider’, stop saying ‘But he’s very good to his mother’. Stop insinuating that because he has done one good thing, he is incapable of hurting the woman he lives with – and their children.

 

Break the cycle. Don’t accept, excuse, or refuse to see, intimate partner abuse.

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Health, Parenting, Personal, Uncategorized

World Prematurity Day

Yesterday was World Prematurity Day: A day to celebrate the babies born around the world well in advance of their ‘due’ dates. Technically, that means a baby born before 37 weeks’ gestation. The further out from 37 weeks a baby is, the slimmer their chance of survival.  Things are not as grim for these ‘early-borns’ as they were 20 or even 15 years ago.

My own early born came into this world 10 weeks early, and so many of the stories I read yesterday resonated with me. I’m not, however, going to reproduce a blow-by-blow account of her early hours and days. Instead, I’d like to offer hope to parents struggling with tiny babies. I was told my little girl wouldn’t last the night. I was told my little girl would have severe learning and developmental delays. I was told my little girl would never ‘look right’. I was told my little girl would always be small for her age.

Now, at thirteen and eight months old, Ishthara has defied the odds. She is narrow and fine-boned (like her sister) and she will always be petite. But she’s not tiny. Not any more.

Ishthara is a bright, confident, sweet young lady. She is kind and thoughtful and good to her sister. (She’s good to her mum, as well!). She is responsible and polite and loves her friends. She loves to cook and loves make-up and crime shows on Netflix. She is a normal thirteen year old girl. Because miracles do happen. They happen every day – and they happen every day in the lives of early-born babies and their families.

Girls World Premie Day

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Health

Ah here!

I’m fed up. No, really. Here we are again, with the 8th Amendment making life a misery for a family: Denying her parents the possibility to bury their daughter; denying her children the right to grieve their mother; denying her partner the right to say goodbye to the woman he loved. The sickening details of the case currently making headlines in Ireland are here.

 

We all know that if this woman had not been pregnant at the time she died, she would have been afforded dignity at the time of her passing. But this is Ireland. So forget that. This woman’s personhood is gone, but her person is being used as a vessel to maintain a foetus. How is that acceptable in a so-called ‘modern’ country in 2014? How? It’s beyond macabre. It smacks of something Josef Mengele would have dreamt up and visited upon poor unfortunates in Auschwitz.

 

In the last years of the last century, I sought help to conceive. My doctor spoke of IVF as being a last resort. He also mentioned the stigma attached to being ‘a test tube baby’. If there was stigma in Ireland attached to being a test tube baby, can you imagine the stigma that would attach to being a cadaver baby? Except, of course, this foetus is not expected to survive until viability.  So what, exactly, is the point? Well, the point is that doctors at the hospital (understandably) don’t want to be seen to be acting in contravention to the constitution. So to avoid situations like this – and this is really simple – repeal the fucking amendment that allows women to be treated like this. Seriously.

 

It’s stories like this that remind me why Ireland is such an awful place to live: We treat our most vulnerable citizens with such little respect. We have a history of cruelty to those who cannot help themselves. As a society, we tolerate the intolerable being meted out to others.

 

Actually, forget our history. Look at how we are – today, in 2014 – treating our most vulnerable. Here’s a list to get you going:

Direct Provision

People with mental health difficulties

People with learning difficulties (Aras Attracta’s )

Disabled children

Prisoners (over-crowding, slopping out in Mountjoy, lack of conjugal visits etc.)

Children in Childcare settings (remember the Prime Time investigation?)

Homeless people

Children at risk

 

And, of course, the thousands of  women in Ireland who find themselves pregnant, vulnerable and in need of abortions. I use the word ‘need’ very deliberately: I have never met a woman who wanted an abortion; but I have met many who needed them, because of the circumstances surrounding the conception, or the circumstances they were in shortly thereafter, or because their foetus had a condition that was incompatible with life. Women denied safe, legal abortions in Ireland.

 

Now, add to that list women who have the misfortune to die with a foetus inside them.  What message is this sending to our women and young girls? That are not worth as much as their male counteparts; that they cannot expected to be treated with as much dignity as their male counterparts and that the state has an interest in the contents of their wombs.

 

I have a ten year old daughter and, after the last time we went to a demonstration begging our government to hold a referendum to repeal the 8th, she thought for a bit and said ‘I think Ireland is only a good place if you’re rich and white and a man.’

 

I think she’s right.

 

 

 

 

 

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Health, Parenting

Children First? Don’t Hold Your Breath.

Yesterday, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was delighted to announce the publication of the Children First Bill.

There was much self-congratulation as Minister Frances Fitzgerald and her department tried to tell us how this would make life so much easier for children in Ireland.

Well…..I’m calling bullshit.

The new act is a toothless instrument of the law. It’s all very well to say that reporting is mandatory; but if there are no sanctions against those who choose not to report, then what good is such a mandate?

I would suggest that a change in the culture is what’s needed before we can hope for a law that actually makes a difference. Naively, you might question what kind of person would choose not to report a crime of abuse against a child? Surely, if a person- particularly a person in authority – knows (or even suspects) that  a child is being abused, that person would report it? Even without a law dictating that they should? You might think that, but I recently got sight of documents which blow that theory right out of the water.

I do think those involved should be named and shamed – but have been advised against so doing for the time being. (Patience was never my strong point. This is a hard lesson for me).

Without naming names, then, let me give you the broadstrokes:

In the early 1990s, a woman (let’s call her Deirdre, because that’s not her name) was in her mid-teens. She was being treated at a centre for the effects of sexual abuse. During this time, the psychiatrist under whose care she was (lets call her Dr C), asked Deirdre if she was still being sexually abused. Deirdre revealed that her father was still sexually abusing her.

What did this doctor do? Did she call the Gardai? No. What? Not even anonymously? No. What she did was seek a meeting with the paedophile in question. At this meeting (documented by the doctor herself), she confronted him with the information she had regarding the allegations Deirdre had made. Did he deny abusing her? No. Sure why would he? What he did, instead, was tell Dr C that ‘there (was) nothing sexual’ about his sexual abuse of this child. Instead, he averred, he was doing it ‘to comfort’ her because he was aware she had been sexually abused by other people as well. Doctor C’s response? She told him to ‘be more sensitive’.

I mean, seriously, what does that amount to? Isn’t that the same as saying ‘Rape her more gently’?!

Of course, you can say that this is a case of historic abuse, and no one would behave in such a way in this day and age. If you did say that, I would like to agree with you.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t. When these documents surfaced (as the result of an FOI request Deirdre made), Deirdre met with a representative of the centre where she had been ‘treated’ (Dr C was on holiday – though she still works in the centre).  Dr C’s colleague confirmed that, were the same set of circumstances to arrive in front of Dr C today, she would act in precisely the same way because that is the policy of the centre. To do otherwise would be a ‘breach of confidentiality’.

What does this tell you? It tells me what I already know:  Children don’t come first in this country. We do not have a culture (yet) that puts children at the top of the pile. We do not have a society that cherishes, protects and loves its children. Every time I say that, people (women, usually) respond indignantly telling me how much they love their children. Sure, individuals among us may cherish our own personal children – but what about the snotty child at the end of the road, whose parents are drug addicts? Do you love that child? Really? Would you step in to help that child if he or she were being hurt? Would you? Would you really?

We, in Ireland, do not have a culture that views children as precious. We really don’t.

No law will make any difference if there are no sanctions against those who do not obey it. It is ludicrous to suggest otherwise. And, unfortunately, no law will make any difference if the cultural attitudes of the nation enacting it are not in-step with the letter and the spirit of that law.

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Health, Media, Personal

Mind Yourself

Today is World Mental Health (awareness) Day and I was honoured to appear on TV3’s Midday programme (you can see it here – from 13 minutes in), talking to Sybil Mulcahy about my own experiences. It was a short interview (about 3 minutes) so I didn’t say a lot!! I was also interviewed for The Five-Thirty – news round up on the same station.

 

Tonight, I’m taking my girls to see ‘Box of Frogs’ in the hope that it helps normalise the discussion of mental health. And also, to be completely honest, because I know and love the actors in the play.

 

Earlier this week, I was privileged to meet with the Chair of the Expert Group to discuss new capacity and mental health legislation. This was the final element in the body of work I worked on with Amnesty International. So, it’s been a good, and busy week from the mental health point of view.

 

Today is a good day. I feel useful – and for me, that’s key to my own sense of well-being. My girls are well and happy and nothing nasty has arrived in the post, by phone or by email. I have lovely plans for tonight. I’m on an even keel. I know that it would take very little to tip the scales in the wrong direction. I know that it wouldn’t take much to knock the wind out of me completely – but I’m not dwelling on that possibility. I am, instead, dwelling on the fact that today, all is well. Today has brought me nothing I can’t handle. Today is filled with love and friends and brightness and coziness and good food and laughter and happy children.

 

Those of us who have mental health issues aren’t defined by them – any more than a person with asthma is defined by their asthma. Like asthma, mental health issues can be controlled and they don’t affect you every day. Our mental health difficulties don’t manifest every day – there are good days as well as bad days. There are fantastic days as well as terrible days. There are days filled with love and joy and peace, as well as days filled with fear and pain and despair.

 

People with asthma are advised to be aware of their triggers; to avoid them whenever possible; to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give themselves enough time to recover after an episode. In the same way, those of us with mental health issues (and I believe that’s everyone) would do well to be aware of our triggers, to avoid them whenever possible, to take action as soon as a trigger becomes apparent and to give ourselves enough time to recover after an episode.

 

Mind yourself!

 

 

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